Research Projects

Project Title

Academic Departments

Potential Participant Majors*

Evaluation of the Anatomy of Plants of Brownfields using Light and Electron Microscopy

Applied biology, physics, and chemistry

Biochemistry, biology, environmental sciences, natural resources, or physics

Evolution and Characterization of Naphthoquinones in the Plant Family Boraginaceae

Applied biology, computer science, chemistry, and biochemistry

Biochemistry, bioinformatics, biology, chemistry, or computer science

Utilizing Environmentally Friendly Superheated and Supercritical Fluids to Extract Medicinal Compounds from Plants

Chemistry, chemical engineering, and applied biology

Biochemistry, biology, chemistry, and engineering (including civil, chemical, or environmental)

Identifying Medicinally-Relevant Plant Extract Components

Chemistry and biochemistry

Chemistry, biochemistry, or biology

Investigating the Biological Origins of Catechin Protection against Human Diseases

Chemistry, biochemistry, and applied biology

Biochemistry, molecular biology, chemistry, biology

Understanding a Cytochrome c-Based Role of Catechins in Cardiovascular Disease Protection

Chemistry and biochemistry

Biochemistry, molecular biology, chemistry, biology, or pre-health

Analysis and Optimization of Biogas Production Utilizing Different Plant Substrates for Anaerobic Co-Digestion

Applied biology, chemical engineering, and mathematics

Biology, biochemistry, chemistry, engineering (including civil, chemical, and environmental), or mathematics

Surface Engineering of Natural Fibers for Composites Using Atmospheric Plasma

Chemical engineering

Chemistry or engineering (including chemical, industrial, manufacturing, and mechanical)

Investigating Intraindividual Variation and Mutation in an Apple Tree

Applied biology, physics, and chemical engineering

Biochemistry, bioinformatics, biology, computer science, mathematics, or physics

*Example majors only and does not present a comprehensive list of potential majors

Evaluation of the Anatomy of Plants of Brownfields Using Light and Electron Microscopy

James Cohen (Applied Biology), Gillian Ryan (Physics), and Andrzej Przyjazny (Chemistry)

James Cohen
Applied Biology

Andrzej Przyjazny
Chemistry

Native plants can provide great utility for phytoremediation, as these species are well adapted to their native environment and therefore do not require the maintenance that nonnative or hybrid plants may need. Presently, only a limited number of species have demonstrated utility for phytoremediation. Additional plant species, particularly those native to areas with many brownfields, should be evaluated for this application, including plants that may serve as hyperaccumulators of heavy metals. Flint, MI is an excellent location for identifying potential hyperaccumulators because of the large number of brownfield sites within the city (including those within walking distance of Kettering University) and natural areas nearby. Within the brownfields, multiple native species grow alongside those that have been planted specifically for phytoremediation purposes; however, the effects of growing these plants in contaminated soils has yet to be evaluated for most of these native species. The proposed project is a comparative study of the anatomy of native Michigan plants growing in brownfields and in natural areas. It is hypothesized that plants growing in the brownfields will have altered anatomy, such as thicker cell walls and heavy metal deposits, compared to those inhabiting natural areas. As part of the project, participants will gain experience with light and electron microscopy as well as image analysis.

Evolution and Characterization of Naphthoquinones in the Plant Family Boraginaceae

James Cohen (Applied Biology), John Geske (Computer Science), Ali Zand (Chemistry), and Veronica R. Moorman (Biochemistry)

James Cohen
Applied Biology

John Geske
Computer Science

Ali Zand
Chemistry

Naphthoquinones have proven medicinal utility, including antitumor, anti-inflammatory, and HIV-inhibiting properties, and they are common throughout the plant family Boraginaceae. In order to better understand the evolution and chemical diversity of New and Old World species of Boraginaceae that produce naphthoquinones, the UPIR REU participants involved in this project will utilize phylogenetics to undertake a bioguided phytochemical investigation of this class of compounds. It is hypothesized that the New World species of Boraginaceae developed naphthoquinones independently from the Old World species and that novel types of this compound are present in the New World species. This project involves two components. First, the participants will reconstruct a large-scale phylogeny of Boraginaceae utilizing multiple DNA regions and organismal characters. This will allow for an investigation of the patterns of evolution of naphthoquinones, both as a class of compounds and for each type of compound. The second component will involve isolating and identifying naphthoquinones from species of Boraginaceae that have yet to be studied. Through this project, students will learn phylogenetic and bioinformatic methodology (e.g., BLAST searches, multiple sequence alignment, phylogenetic analysis, and ancestral character reconstruction), chemical isolation (e.g., GC-MS, HPLC-MS, and other chromatography methods), and spectroscopic characterization methods (e.g., 1D and 2D NMR). As students become increasingly comfortable with sequence alignment and phylogenetic analyses, the students will be able to be more independent as additional DNA regions, organismal characters, and species are added to the matrix. During the project, the UPIR REU participants will also visit herbaria in Michigan to examine plant specimens in order to identify the species that produce naphthoquinones, providing the participants with experience with specimen-based research.

Utilizing Environmentally Friendly Superheated and Supercritical Fluids to Extract Medicinal Compounds from Plants

Ali Zand (Chemistry), Lihua Wang (Chemistry), Jonathan Wenzel (Chemical Engineering), Michelle Ammerman (Applied Biology), and Cheryl Storer Samaniego (Applied Biology)

Ali Zand
Chemistry

Lihua Wang
Chemistry

Jonathan Wenzel
Chemical Engineering

Michelle Ammerman
Applied Biology

Our research team aims to investigate medicinal properties of compounds extracted from plant sources which would normally be discarded. Some of the best medications are derived from natural sources, and we employ a unique extraction technique utilizing superheated and supercritical fluids. Students interested in our research team can investigate antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and/or anticancer properties of extractions from grapes, blueberries, cherries, eggplant, and more.  The efficiency of superheated and supercritical extraction can also be compared to traditional extraction methods. Specific procedures learned by students working on this project include the operation of a supercritical extraction reactor, utilization of mechanical and chemical extraction methods, performance of various assays (i.e., DNA protection, Ferric Reducing Ability of Plasma [FRAP], 1,1-Diphenyl-2-picryl-hydrazyl [DPPH], trypan blue exclusion, and Total Phenolic Content [TPC]), Cyclooxygenase2 (COX2) analysis via ELISAs, examination of antimicrobial properties, performance of aseptic technique, culture of mammalian cells, preparation of media and buffers, and execution of a battery of cellular tests for expression of apoptotic markers or cell viability and proliferation. Student team members will become proficient in use of equipment such as sonicators, rotary evaporators, superheated/supercritical reactors, UV irradiation chambers, incubators, autoclaves, biosafety cabinets, centrifuges, micropipettes, an automated cell counter, and microplate readers, depending on the aspect of the project on which the participant decides to focus.

Identifying Medicinally-Relevant Plant Extract Components

Ali Zand (Chemistry), Veronica R. Moorman (Biochemistry), Andrzej Przyjazny (Chemistry), and Lihua Wang (Chemistry)

Ali Zand
Chemistry

Andrzej Przyjazny
Chemistry

Lihua Wang
Chemistry

In addition to Kettering’s interdisciplinary interest in the products of superheated extracted plant waste matter, there is also a collaborative effort to identify individual medicinally-relevant compounds in plants. Since the supercritical extraction process may modify or destroy certain compounds of interest through thermal rearrangement and/or decomposition, this group uses a gentler method for extraction involving physical methods including grinding, suspension, and sonication-assisted extraction at or near 0o C. Ferric Reducing Ability of Plasma (FRAP), Total Phenolic Content (TPC) and 1,1-Diphenyl-2-picryl-hydrazyl (DPPH) assays have been used to determine the total reducing power, total amounts of phenolic compounds, and the total free radical scavenging ability of the extracts, respectively. These totals, however, do not provide any information concerning individual components of the extracts, and thus separation and further characterization have been necessitated. It is therefore the motivation of this group to identify and extract components that confer biologically-relevant properties and to determine whether these components have individual positive medicinal effects or are synergistic. Kettering University students have, in fact, begun working towards this goal in certain species of plants, such as yew, turmeric, and broccoli. Gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS) will be used extensively to identify the components of the extracts. Additional column chromatography will be utilized to separate the components of the mixture. Other techniques, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), infrared spectroscopy (IR), and elemental analysis, will be used to assist in precise identification of the separated compounds. Finally, purified components will be characterized using FRAP and DPPH in order to determine the compound’s contribution to the overall reducing power and free-radical scavenging abilities. Other, more directed experiments based on the identity of individual compounds, may also be undertaken. These studies may include testing for antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer properties. The UPIR REU participants will have the opportunity to be involved in any or all stages of this project and learn various techniques for analytical organic chemistry and compound characterization.

Investigating the Biological Origins of Catechin Protection against Human Diseases

Veronica R. Moorman (Biochemistry), Montserrat Rabago-Smith (Chemistry), Cheryl Storer Samaniego (Applied Biology), and James Cohen (Applied Biology)

Montserrat Rabago-Smith
Chemistry

James Cohen
Applied Biology

Teas made from the Camellia sinensis plant have been consumed for thousands of years in Asia and have more recently gained favor in the West for their natural medicinal properties.  Specifically, the presence of large amounts of catechins in teas is known to confer antibacterial, anticancer, anti-cardiovascular distress, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and anti-neurodegenerative properties. Typically, these effects are attributed to catechins’ general antioxidant ability, yet specific interactions with a number of proteins are known and may be important to disease protection. UPIR REU students will investigate these specific interactions through in vivo and/or in vitro experiments. Specifically, students may identify catechin targets using affinity-based methods; characterize targets’ interactions with catechins via isothermal titration calorimetry, nuclear magnetic resonance, or absorbance spectroscopy; fluorescently track the in vivo influence of pure and extracted catechins on medically relevant human cell lines; or investigate the genetic and epigenetic consequences of catechins on medically relevant cell lines.  Understanding catechin interactions and their in vivo consequences are imperative for elucidating molecular mechanisms for disease prevention by catechins.

Understanding a Cytochrome c-Based Role of Catechins in Cardiovascular Disease Protection

Montserrat Rabago-Smith (Chemistry), Lihua Wang (Chemistry), and Veronica R. Moorman (Biochemistry)

Montserrat Rabago-Smith
Chemistry

Lihua Wang
Chemistry

 

Green tea, containing an abundance of catechin antioxidants, is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death in the United States. Catechins are known to interact with cytochrome c, yet the precise molecular mode of action of catechins is not fully understood. This project aims to elucidate these mechanisms. There are two main focuses of this research project. The first is to determine the specific role of lysine residues in cytochrome c–catechin interactions, particularly those close to the heme cofactor of cytochrome c. The UPIR REU students will be involved in one or more of the following components of the project: mutagenesis, gene expression and protein purification, kinetics and thermodynamic studies, and preliminary structural experiments. These components utilize standard molecular biology and biochemistry techniques and procedures as well as necessitate the use of more advanced instrumentation, such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC). The second focus of this research project is on the chemical nature of the catechins themselves. While previous studies have relied on reduction reactions to monitor cytochrome c-catechin binding, more recently, the group has observed evidence for catechin binding without the accompanying reduction. Preliminary research has suggested that the diphenols in particular are important in this binding. The group aims to test the binding and oxidation-reduction reaction between different catechins and cytochrome c. A systematic study using available and/or easily modified catechins is proposed to investigate the structural features required for binding and for reduction. Additionally, interested students have the potential to collaborate with others on campus in developing methods of extracting and purifying catechins directly from teas.

Analysis and Optimization of Biogas Production Utilizing Different Plant Substrates for Anaerobic Co-Digestion

Michelle Ammerman (Applied Biology), Steve Nartker (Chemical Engineering), and Matthew O’Toole (Mathematics)

Michelle Ammerman
Applied Biology

Steve Nartker
Chemical Engineering

Anaerobic digestion (AD) is a multistage process in which microorganisms break down biodegradable organic material in the absence of oxygen to create biogas, including biomethane. AD is a practical method for minimizing and stabilizing primary sewage sludge prior to its disposal. Typically, primary sewage sludge is co-digested with various waste streams, including agricultural biomass, chemical processing residuals (glycerol, fats, etc.), and municipal food waste, in an effort to convert these waste streams to energy. This can result in increased gas production and methane content of the biogas during the AD process. However, the anaerobic digester is a sensitive microenvironment, and careful prescreening and testing are needed to determine the utility of different biomass waste for co-digestion. Automated Biological Methane Potential (BMP) analysis equipment and Continuously Stirred Tank Reactors (CSTR) are used to assess the maximum gas production from a certain substrate under optimum conditions and establish and optimize process parameters for the co-digestion process. The overall goal is for the UPIR REU participants to work with one project from start to finish. The possible projects include the characterization of of various agricultural and food waste products for co-digestion, comparison of different pretreatment methods (physical, chemical, or enzymatic) on biogas production, determination of optimum process parameters for the co-digestion of primary sludge and other waste products using the CSTRs, and mathematical simulation of biogas production to suggest methods to optimize the process for different substrates.

Surface Engineering of Natural Fibers for Composites Using Atmospheric Plasma

Mary Gilliam (Chemical Engineering) and Susan Farhat (Chemical Engineering)

Mary Gilliam
Chemical Engineering

Susan Farhat
Chemical Engineering

A significant portion of the landfill waste in the United States consists of materials from building and construction. In addition, the production, transportation, utilization, and demolition of the materials require substantial energy derived from fossil fuels, which contributes to climate change. Thus, a great need exists for innovative new materials that have the strength and durability needed in building materials, yet have a reduced weight, volume, and toxicity and are easier to recycle. Natural Fiber Composites (NFCs) have been receiving much interest and growing market penetration recently due to increased concern over greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel energy consumption, and landfill waste. However, the penetration of NFCs into the market is limited by two major technical issues that reduce mechanical performance: resin compatibility and water absorption. Many researchers have been investigating chemical surface treatment and coatings on the fibers using a variety of methods. These approaches, however, typically involve several steps, long treatment times, and significant waste. The approach proposed in this project involves a process that is fast, streamlined, and low cost, with minimal environmental impact. A variety of monomers, polymers, and other chemicals will be investigated, by the UPIR REU participants, to graft compatible molecules and coatings to the surface of the fibers. Fibers will be tested for wettability, contact angle, and chemical surface changes using an X-Ray Photoelectron Spectrometer that was acquired through the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation (NSF MRI) program. Preliminary results have demonstrated the capability of the process to permanently modify and tailor the wettability and surface chemistry of spun cellulose fibers. The effects of the plasma gas, chemicals, pre-treatments, exposure time, and other process parameters will be analyzed to enable optimization. Treated fibers will be processed into composite materials and tested for tensile and flexural properties according to ASTM D638 and D790 to evaluate changes in mechanical performance.

Investigating Intraindividual Variation and Mutation in an Apple Tree

James Cohen (Applied Biology), Gillian Ryan (Physics), and Salomon Turgman-Cohen (Chemical Engineering)

James Cohen
Applied Biology

Salomon Turgman-Cohen
Chemical Engineering

One critical developmental difference between plants and animals is that in animals the somatic line and the germ line are distinct, but in plants the two are not separate. Because of this lack of separation, mutations that arise in somatic cells of plants, such as in the hundreds of apical meristems in large trees, can infiltrate the germline, resulting in intraindividual variation throughout a plant as well as the potential for somatic mutations to be passed on to offspring. For the UPIR REU project, intraindividual variation within a plant will be investigated at the morphological and genetic level throughout a single apple tree (Malus domestica Baumg.). It is hypothesized that mutations will accumulate independently in different areas of the plant, and that areas of the plant with more mutations will have decreased fitness, as measured by pollen viability. Leaf variation and pollen viability throughout the tree will be studied using image analysis tools and plant histology methods, and the somatic mutation rate and the accumulation of somatic mutations will be correlated with fitness (as measured by pollen viability) and germline mutation rate. Participants will also help to build a model of mutation accumulation throughout plant development in order to predict influence of plant age and structure. Through the project, participants will be exposed to various types of image analysis, genome sequence data, and biological model construction.